When a Charlottesville environmental nonprofit found out about plans for a huge solar farm in a nearby part of Virginia recently powered by coal, its leaders were eager to give a quick thumbs-up.
First, however, the Community Climate Collaborative, or C3, was curious if the solar project proposed for southeast Albemarle County — where Charlottesville is the county seat — measured up on climate justice.
Finding such a yardstick proved elusive. Not to be deterred, the tiny but resourceful organization delved into inventing one.
C3 released the first iteration of its Solar Climate Justice Scorecard in late January. The free, publicly available tool incorporates science-based data to help advocates, local governments, policymakers — and also solar developers — independently evaluate how large-scale, sun-powered projects affect neighbors.
Amplifying justice implications is vital, explained C3 executive director Susan Kruse. Equally crucial, she added, is revealing how local solar energy decisions are intertwined with the global reality of a hotter planet.
“The environmental community does not have a long history of supporting projects with a development angle,” Kruse said. “But there are things we need to [support] to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.”
C3’s 29-page scorecard ranks solar projects by taking into account topics such as a developer’s plans for engaging the community, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, providing jobs, and mitigating potential problems with soil, water and biological diversity.
In addition, it ranks “external” factors that fall into the realm of local government officials. Questions center on how avoided greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to local climate goals, if approval or rejection of a project will set a precedent for similar future proposals, and if extra tax revenues generated by the project advance climate justice goals.
For instance, some localities might have innovative tax structures where project revenues relieve energy burdens for low-income residents.
C3 policy director Caetano de Campos Lopes and his colleague Katie Ebinger, a policy analyst, devoted three months to crafting what could be the first such assessment tool nationwide because they sought to shine a spotlight on fairness. In addition, they wanted to help staunch the flow of misinformation they fear is stymieing some utility-scale solar farms.
Boosted by the far-reaching 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, the state is on track to add close to 6,000 megawatts of solar capacity over the next five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. That figure now stands at 3,885 MW.
Too often, de Campos Lopes said, solar projects are boiled down to the number of homes powered and tons of heat-trapping gases reined in.
“There are many nuances to solar projects,” he explained. “We aim to make these nuances more visible and assign a score to those gray areas.”
Historically, he noted, impoverished communities and communities of color have borne disproportionate environmental and health harms of conventional fossil fuel energy production without consent or benefits.
“As we move to a clean energy future, it is imperative that we avoid replicating the same power dynamics and pollution,” de Campos Lopes said. “Our intention is not to slow the progress of clean energy developments, but rather to expedite their just and efficient deployment.”
Hexagon aces first scorecard test
This winter, the C3 duo opted to test its nascent scorecard on the project that inspired it — a 138-megawatt solar farm that Hexagon Energy wants to build on a portion of a 2,300-acre loblolly pine plantation in its own backyard in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
C3 figures the 400 gigawatt-hours of electricity the proposed Woodridge solar farm would generate annually is enough to power about 30,000 homes, more than half of Albemarle County’s 45,000 households.
Hexagon aced the developer portion, scoring 30.75 out of 35 points, on its plans for what’s called the Woodridge solar farm.
Scott Remer, Hexagon’s director of development, said his Charlottesville-based company didn’t mind being C3’s “guinea pig.”
“I’m glad we could serve as a test case and I’m very pleased with the results,” Remer said about hitting 88% of the markers laid out in a February report. “When I introduced C3 to this project, I had no idea this tool would be coming down the pipeline.”
Hexagon earned kudos for climate change mitigation, employment opportunities, environmental protection measures and strong community engagement. C3 encouraged the company to present its community engagement materials in multiple languages and to consider adding a power resilience mechanism such as on-site battery storage.
Overall, the Woodridge project earned 37.75 points out of a possible 50 when C3 analyzed the justice impacts of both Hexagon’s plans and the county’s existing renewable energy policies.
The county fell short in at least two ways, according to the C3 analysis. It lacked programs that funneled tax dollars from solar projects toward programs designed to shrink the energy bills of low-income residents. Also, it needed to provide childcare during public hearings so more residents could participate.
Still, high marks prompted C3 to urge the County Board of Supervisors to approve a special use permit for Woodridge. It’s scheduled for an April 5 vote.
In mid-December, the planning commission had voted 6-0 to advance the project to the full board.
Thus far, more than 300 Charlottesville and county residents have signed an electronic petition being circulated by C3 in favor of Woodridge.
If greenlighted, the solar farm project would then be reviewed by the state Department of Environmental Quality. That process takes about a year, Remer said.
Hexagon has at least 10 other Virginia projects in its hopper. The company’s wide solar portfolio stretches as far north as Maine, south to Georgia and west to Kansas.
“We could have just written a letter of support,” Kruse said about C3’s method of reviewing Woodridge. “But we wanted a proper tool that produced real calculations so advocates could evaluate projects from a holistic perspective. That’s something that was sorely needed.”
Solar to fill coal, natural gas gap
Hexagon learned about the Woodridge site’s availability because of its deep regional roots. The company’s CEO had attended high school with the co-owner of the timber operation, who notified him about the land’s availability several years ago.
Remer began intensifying his Albemarle County outreach in December 2021 when regional transmission operator PJM granted Hexagon a quick thumbs-up on its grid interconnection request.
Hexagon “lucked out” by avoiding the usual backup, he said, because the electrons from Woodridge will replace ones that once flowed on transmission lines from Dominion Energy’s Bremo Bluff Power Station, in next-door Fluvanna County.
That 254-megawatt plant was retired in 2019 and demolished three years later. Beginning in 1931, two of its units burned coal for 40-plus years. Two separate coal-powered units built in the 1950s were converted to natural gas in 2014.
“There’s space on the line so we’re backfilling power,” Remer said. “We skirted all the usual PJM delays.”
In his seven years in the solar industry, Remer has absorbed the lesson that early and meaningful face-to-face interactions aren’t just an olive branch of goodwill. They’re a crucial necessity.
The civil engineer spent months touring the area in his red Tundra pickup, knocking on doors and explaining every angle of the project.
“It’s arrogant to just go in and tell people solar is an unequivocal good because it isn’t fossil fuels,” he said. “The industry has to grow in how we engage with communities. That means boots on the ground.”
Those one-on-one conversations, community meetings and site tours spurred Hexagon to rearrange some of its subarrays and also give up prime land for panels to satisfy neighbor’s requests for wider natural screens near residences and roadways.
Now, panels will cover about 650 acres of a 1,500-acre project that can serve as a wildlife corridor. Arrays will be surrounded by wetlands, meadows, streams and buffers made up of mature forests, fast-growing trees and grass mixes.
Hexagon already has a pact with a local beekeeping organization to welcome on-site hives, Remer said. Eventually, the company wants to invite local sheep farmers to allow grazing.
C3’s score rewarded the company for its plans to restore a pollinator-friendly habitat and rejuvenate soil depleted and degraded by 80 years of logging. As well, it earned environmental points for being close enough to transmission lines that trees, which serve as carbon sinks, wouldn’t be cut.
Relatedly, C3 praised the project for mitigating carbon emissions measuring 82,000 U.S. tons in its first year of operation. Those cumulative avoided emissions will continue to grow over the project’s 35-year lifespan.
Unfortunately, de Campos Lopes noted, the project likely won’t contribute to the county’s carbon-cutting goals because Woodridge isn’t tied to a specific local business. Thus, its carbon credits aren’t guaranteed to offset local emissions.
The goal of the county’s Climate Action Plan is to cut emissions by 45% by 2030 and achieve net-zero status by 2050. The baseline is a 2008 greenhouse gas inventory.
Pushing a solar project across the finish line “is a messy process,” said Remer, who began working with Hexagon in 2016 at the tail of completing his University of Virginia doctorate in systems engineering. His specialty focused on the meshing of infrastructure and human flourishing.
“I had theoretical knowledge about how to have conversations with a community about solar, but had to figure out what that meant in the real world,” he said. “We’re very proud of what’s evolved at Woodridge. We hope it can set a standard for how to do a project well.”
A tool for all counties?
C3’s idea of a scorecard is intriguing to Energy Right, a conservative Richmond-based nonprofit that sees huge renewable power potential. Its intent is to guide rural Virginians as they sort out facts from fiction on the solar front.
Since August, co-founder and CEO Skyler Zunk has led a team that has traveled to 40 of the state’s 95 counties to talk about how communities can devise sound energy decisions locally. Albemarle wasn’t among those visited.
“Clean energy is reshaping the grid,” Zunk said. “We want to provide education and support to help make projects the best neighbors possible.”
Even though a focus on environmental justice might not be an ideal fit for the audience Energy Right is engaging, Zunk said he was impressed with C3’s comprehensive and multilayered approach to a complicated endeavor.
“It’s cool,” he said. “I hope they can get some mileage out of it.”
Kruse, C3’s executive director, is encouraged that Zunk recognized the scorecard’s attention to detail.
“When we do something at C3, we want it to be well-researched and accurate,” Kruse said. “We want people to feel confident in what we put out there.”
Zunk doubts climate issues would reverberate in the rural counties he targets. Instead, he said, the four solar pillars that matter to his audiences are property rights, economic development, energy security and energy independence.
As his young organization values local decision-making, staffers have toyed with the idea of creating either a model county solar ordinance or a document outlining standards for an ideal solar project.
“Different messages resonate differently with different people,” Zunk said.
Kruse said it’s too soon to predict if the scorecard will take off.
“It remains to be seen how widely it will be used,” she said. “But justice issues are connected to community support and buy-in and that is useful everywhere.
“This is the direction we need to be moving.”
Correction: This article was updated to correct the spelling of the proposed Albemarle County project. It is the Woodridge solar farm.